Lenor laundry perfume bottles have been equipped with digital watermarks since autumn 2020. (Image: P&G)
Procter & Gamble is packaging the future
In times of change, very little stays the same, something that can also be applied to the packaging industry. But what direction will the industry take? Jürgen Dornheim should know. The engineer is the Director Corporate Packaging Sustainability & Innovation at the German headquarters of Procter & Gamble, a Forbes Global 2000 company. “My primary responsibility is finding out what we can do better on the one hand and identifying areas for which there are currently no solutions, for example, on the other.”
Jürgen Dornheim, Director Corporate Packaging Sustainability & Innovation at Procter & Gamble (Image: P&G)
And solutions are a must, as problems are pressing. There are no two ways about it: the packaging industry needs to become more sustainable. Dornheim believes one central concept is the highly-praised circular economy, in other words, recycling resources in full, as far as possible, without any non-recyclable material loss. “We want our materials to come back to us, and for them to pass through the entire cycle without taking damage,” explains Dornheim. “Ultimately, at that point former waste becomes a valuable commodity, a commodity we will then employ again.”
P&G now processes recyclable tubes made out of mono-material (Image: P&G)
To see how this can be done in practice, one need look no further than the development of the new toothpaste tubes for brands distributed by Procter & Gamble (such as Oral-B, Crest and Blend-A-Med). For a long time, the company’s tubes were manufactured using traditional, multi-layer methods. However, to ensure the sustainable use of resources, the group developed a mono-material solution which elevated the product from the category “non-recyclable” to the category “recyclable”. “Which was a bit tricky, but we found ways to do it,” Dornheim says.
Besides the question of which materials to use, part of the future of packaging is unprecedented multifunctionality. Gone are the days when a laundry detergent bottle was just a container. At least, that’s the impression one gets when looking at Procter & Gamble’s Lenor laundry detergent (Europe, Russia, Japan; sold as Downy in the USA). Since autumn 2020, the bottles have been equipped with a label that is invisible to the human eye, a digital watermark with a name pregnant with meaning: the Holy Grail. This watermark makes it much easier for machines to sort used packaging, noticeably increasing the recyclability of materials. The fact that the watermark simultaneously makes it possible to fully automate check-out processes at supermarkets almost seems like a secondary effect. “And that gained support from very unusual quarters,” Dornheim reports.
Customers are slow to adapt to change
It seems obvious that adjustments and innovations are not always successful; ultimately, what still counts is how well customers accept change. And despite public awareness of sustainability and environmental conservation, consumers are not always accommodating. In its solid shape, soap, for example, both conserves more resources, as it is manufactured without water, and saves CO2, as it takes up less space during transport. But customers are slow to adapt to changes like these, something Dornheim is very much aware of. “A lot of the time, change doesn’t happen over night. And on some markets, in some countries, that’s something we’ve had to learn the hard way.”
At the end of the day, perhaps not every attempt needs to be a success – even if that would, of course, be the desired outcome. After all, every attempt gives impetus to the industry, showing that companies are striving for change, and that said change is feasible. And seeing one’s ideas being copied proves that imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, at least according to Dornheim. “I always feel it’s an honour, in a way, seeing somebody else copy an idea you introduced to the market. It shows you must have done something right.”